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Middle Passage Paperback – July 1, 1998

68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

In this savage parable of the African American experience, Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave eking out a living in New Orleans in 1830, hops aboard a square rigger to evade the prim Boston schoolteacher who wants to marry him. But the Republic turns out to be a slave clipper bound for Africa. Calhoun, whose master educated him as a humanist, becomes the captain's cabin boy, and though he hates himself for acting as a lackey, he's able to help the African slaves recently taken aboard to stage a revolt before the rowdy, drunken crew can spring a mutiny. Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book Award. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Calhoun, a newly freed slave, accidentally boards a slave ship bound for Africa with a tyrannical, philosophizing captain and his rowdy, mutinous crew. "Blending confessional, ship's log and adventure, the narrative interweaves a disquisition on slavery, poverty, race relations and an African worldview at odds with Western materialism," said PW of this National Book Award-winner . "In luxuriant, intoxicating prose Johnson makes the agonized past a prism looking onto a tense present."
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 209 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (July 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684855887
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684855882
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,725 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Fitzgerald Fan VINE VOICE on January 18, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book was mandatory for my African American Literature course and I am glad that it was. It is impossible for anyone to imagine today what it would have been like for Africans to be taken from the comfort of their homes to be slaves in America. The only thing we could compare it to is being abducted by aliens if you really think about it. They were overtaken by people who looked very different than they did and who spoke an unknown language. They were put into giant ships of the likes they had never seen and many times, they were branded and always chained below decks. Many thought they were being taken to a foreign land to be eaten and often times the slavers would put slaves in groups with different tribes so that they could not communicate or comfort eachother due to a language barrier. They knew nothing of the world around them as people do today. The concept is, in truth, almost impossible to imagine.
Johnson studied about Middle Passage for something like seventeen years before writing this book, not to mention another six years studying maritime science. To be sure, there are a lot of fantastical occurrences within the book but that is why it is called fiction. I believe he does a phenomenal job with the character of Rutherford Calhoun...he's a liar, gambler, womanizer, and thief but there is something about him that puts the reader on his side. You will find yourself rooting for him all the way through the book.
The novel itself is indeed very graphic in description and includes things such as cannibalism so, if you have a weak stomach, BEWARE. The best things about this novel are its extremely dark humor,its fast pace, and its irony.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Ron Hayes ( on January 31, 1998
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I read Middle Passage over the course of a weekend. This is significant for two reasons: 1)I was to meet Charles Johnson that following Monday and 2) I have a three-year-old and an infant who slowed my reading to a crawl and cut my opportunites to sit down with the book to a minimum. Had I not been so distracted, I would easily have digested Middle Passage in a matter of hours. It is an excellent read. Its protagonist, Rutherford Calhoun, comes off as a latter day Huck Finn, only this time black and educated. The wit and wisdom is very nearly the same.
Despite what other reviewers may have felt, and despite what one may construe as anachronisms within the book, I can attest that such is not the case. I had similar concerns about the novel's historical accuracy and when I finally did have an opportunity to speak with the author, I voiced those concerns. Mr. Johnson assured me of the veracity of virtually every aspect of every detail; he cited the genesis of the scene in which the dead slave is thrown overboard as an example. As an avid (dare I say slavish?) note-taker, Mr. Johnson had apparently done some research for a project having nothing to do with this novel. Indeed, the research notes to which he refers were taken in the early seventies! They came from a police detective friend of his and detailed the effect water had on the human body after death--unusable for the article for which he had originally been researching, but quite useful for the graphic turning point of Middle Passage.
Other evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, proved that Mr.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 12, 1997
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Perhaps who ever did the review for should read the book again. Rutherford Calhoun does not become the captain's cabin boy, he becomes the cook's helper. He does not discover "to his shock and horror" that the vessel he stows away on is a slave ship since he already knew that from his conversation with the drunken cook in a tavern on shore. What he does learn that shocks him is that on a previous voyage the captain had eaten the cabin boy. Another statement that interested me was one of the promotional quotes in the front of the book, "MIDDLE PASSAGE IS AN EXAMPLE OF TRIUMPHANT INDIVIDUALISM .... Johnson's novel is a reason for celebration." - George F. Will. During the voyage, Rutherford learned that "if you hoped to see shore, you must devote yourself to the welfare of everyone ..." Not only Rutherford, but Squibb, the cook, learned this. Some like the captain did not, but then he ended up at the bottom of the ocean. At one point, Rutherford is describing the Allmuseri, the Africans taken on board as slaves, "Their notion of `experience', I learned, held each man utterly responsible for his own happiness or sorrow, for the emptiness of his world or its abundance, even for his dreams and his entire way of seeing ..." Perhaps this is what George Will liked, but later Rutherford says of the Africans, "... Tribal behavior so ritualized, seasoned, and spiced by the palm oil, the presence of others it virtually rendered the single performer invisible - or, put another way, blended them into an action so common the one and many were as indistinguishable as ocean and wave." The amazing thing about the book to me, is that for Rutherford Calhoun everything comes full circle.Read more ›
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